We have secured settlement for a client who pursued a clinical negligence claim against her private maxillofacial surgeon and The London Clinic (the hospital). The claim arose following her wisdom tooth extraction surgery in March 2017, during which she suffered a burn to her lower lip and cheek.
Our client was a 21-year-old private patient. On 3 March 2017 she visited the surgeon at The London Clinic. She was advised that she had an impacted lower third molar which required surgical removal. The procedure took place under general anaesthetic on 17 March 2017.
After the operation, our client was told that there had been a complication during surgery and that the surgical drill had overheated. The drill had caused a burn to her lower right lip and cheek. The burn was recorded as measuring 2 cm by 1 cm. Our client’s wound was dressed and she was discharged.
The burn gradually healed over the following six months but our client was left with a hypertrophic scar (a raised and lumpy scar that was different in colour to her natural skin tone). She was advised that she needed to allow the scar to mature during the following 18 months before she could be considered for scar revision surgery.
Our client was concerned that she had sustained a burn during her routine surgery. She approached us to investigate a potential product liability claim against the manufacturer of the drill, which she had been told was defective.
After obtaining and reviewing our client’s medical records, and the manufacturer’s investigation report, it seemed clear to us that the surgical drill was not defective. The investigation report had confirmed that, on examination, the drill functioned perfectly normally. It therefore appeared that the incident had occurred because the surgeon had not properly prepared the device for surgery. We advised our client to pursue a clinical negligence claim against him.
A letter of claim was sent to the surgeon alleging that he had failed to prepare the dental drill properly prior to our client’s surgery. When preparing a surgical drill for wisdom tooth extraction, the surgeon should ensure that the chuck (the clamp at the end of the drill which holds the drill component) has been turned all the way until it clicks and will not turn any further. There is no record that this had been done – or that the surgeon checked to ensure that the drill had been correctly prepared – before our client’s surgery. It was alleged that the drill component was slightly loose and tiny vibrations due to friction caused it to become hot. We argued that, had the surgeon ensured that the drill had been correctly prepared, the drill would not have overheated and our client would not have suffered the burn to her lip and cheek.
The defendant denied liability and argued that the hospital was responsible for our client’s injury.
Further investigations were carried out which included obtaining and reviewing the hospital’s maintenance logs, as well as the manufacturer’s guidance for care and maintenance of the surgical drill. It became apparent that the hospital had not maintained the device at intervals recommended by the manufacturer to ensure patient safety. A further letter of claim was prepared and sent to the hospital alleging a failure to maintain its surgical equipment properly.
The defendant hospital denied liability and asserted that the surgeon was responsible for our client’s injury.
Our view remained that our client had sustained an injury that should not have occurred and that either the hospital or the private surgeon were responsible. We engaged in further correspondence with both defendants and eventually obtained confirmation that they would compensate our client jointly for her injuries.
Evidence was obtained from an expert plastic surgeon. In his opinion, our client’s scar was not capable of being disguised with make-up and she required surgery to improve its appearance. He believed that, even with revision surgery, her scar would be obvious at conversation level and would represent a permanent cosmetic disfigurement.
Our client was a young woman who was very proud of her appearance. She did not wear make-up prior to the procedure and her medical records indicated that the incident and the appearance of her scar had affected her confidence and caused her to suffer depression. An opinion was obtained from an expert psychiatrist who confirmed that she had suffered a psychological injury because of the negligence.
After quantifying the claim, we entered into negotiations to explore settlement on our client’s behalf. The defendants initially made a very low offer which was not representative of the injuries sustained. After some negotiation, the solicitors for the defendants offered to settle the claim for a larger compensation award, the sum of £30,000. This was acceptable to our client and settlement was agreed.
This case demonstrates the importance of both surgeons taking care to ensure that surgical equipment is correctly prepared and safe to use before commencing surgery, and health providers complying with manufacturer protocols for maintaining equipment to ensure it does not jeopardise patient safety.
The injury sustained by our client to her right cheek was entirely avoidable and, had negligence not occurred, she would not have suffered the permanent scar to her right cheek, which will affect her for the rest of her life.